When you think of the giants of American business, names like Bill Gates and Ted Turner probably come to mind, maybe John D. Rockefeller. Probably not Linda Alvarado or C.J. Walker or Hetty Green. Yet these women made their mark on America's economy… and they along with some 40 other successful businesswomen are featured in a new exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
The exhibit, Enterprising Women: 250 Years of American Business, begins in the present… with photographs and video portraits introducing some of today's most influential female executives… women like Linda Alvarado who owns the Colorado Rockies baseball team, Meg Whitman, president of the on-line auction site e-Bay, and media mogul Oprah Winfrey.
The Museum's chief curator, Susan Fisher Sterling, says when these successful businesswomen are perceived as people, it becomes easy to feel connected with them.
"You see them as little children, you see them grow up and find out about their aspirations," she said. "Then, you see them as successful businesswomen and you realize that from the time they were five till the time they are 50 or so, that they're able to accomplish a great deal. So you get to know them and see them as people."
The exhibit then moves visitors back in time, to the earliest days of the nation.
"When we go up to the second floor, when the exhibition begins its historical roots in the 1750s, you have Katherine Goddard. She is a Baltimore printer, she owns her shop. She prints the Declaration of Independence with the signatures. She's the first to do that. She's extremely successful, she prints a newspaper and all kinds of other important documents of the period," said Ms. Fisher Sterling. "We have a Declaration of Independence [on loan] from the Library of Congress that she printed. We have an example of a print workshop from that period, and some of her implements that she had used to create her printed materials. And what's wonderful to see about Goddard is how respected she was. But what's tragic to see is how her relative was able to take the business away from her because of the legal standing of women at that time."
Still, Ms. Fisher Sterling says, women continued to make their mark in traditionally male fields of work. She points to Hetty Green, one of the richest women in the world at the beginning of the 20th century.
"In fact, there was a song written, 'If I were as Rich as Hetty Green,' which was extremely popular in her day," she said. "She was very interested in Wall Street and became very rich, but she dressed very shabbily. She carried her moneybags under her skirt and she lived like a pauper. People knew this at the time and called her the 'Witch of Wall Street', because of her appearance and also because women in men's fields were not thought to be feminine."
Another businesswoman featured in the exhibit made her fortune helping women look feminine and feel good about themselves. In 1905, Madam C.J. Walker created and began marketing beauty products for African American women.
"Mme. C.J. Walker was the first African-American woman to develop hair care and beauty products for women of her race," said Ms. Fisher Sterling. "And she became very wealthy doing this. More importantly, she gave African American women the chance to have their own business in her beauty salons, which she established throughout the country."
Along with entrepreneurs, the exhibit showcases inventors like Martha Coston, who designed a signal flare in the late 1800s that made it possible for naval vessels to communicate at night.
The Enterprising Women exhibit is organized by the National Heritage Museum and Harvard University's Redcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Institute official Jane Knowels says it's important to remember that these wonderful women entrepreneurs contributed a great deal to the American economy, in spite of social and legal obstacles.
"There were many difficulties that faced women in the 18th century," she said. "Married women could not own property; African-American women were property. American women could not vote until 1920s; they were kept out of business schools until the 20th century."
While each success story has its own elements, Ms. Knowels says each businesswoman portrayed in the exhibition shares several important characteristics.
"All of them were very assertive. They all had a good idea and were able to put the capital together to market it," she said. "They were risk takers. They were able to meet the challenges of their gender. And of course, they had to be good sales women; they had to find a niche, and do good advertising to get their products to sell."
Ms. Knowels says these successful businesswomen are a source of inspiration for young girls coming through the exhibit.
"They are particularly inspired by Ruth Handler who's the mother of the Barbie doll. They are interested in the modern women as well," she said. "So they want to find out about Linda Alvarado who owns her own construction company, they want to find out about Meg Whitman who's CEO of eBay. These women have really done well. In many ways, by giving young girls a history, you enable them to be inspired by the past."
As National Museum of Women in the Arts curator Susan Fisher Sterling says, the Enterprising Women exhibition highlights the legacy that today's young women have inherited. She says younger generations have to understand that because of what these women - their mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers - did, they have fewer obstacles on the road to success.